Liberal Zionists must take up the fight against BDS, not ally with it

There is a case to be made for the activism of Jewish student groups that appeal to progressives. But not when they make common cause with anti-Semites.

Vietnam War protesters march at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 21, 1967. Credit: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Frank Wolfe via Wikimedia Commons.
Vietnam War protesters march at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 21, 1967. Credit: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Frank Wolfe via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

There was a time when Israel and the organized Jewish world didn’t hesitate about supporting left-wing Jewish student groups. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, groups like the North American Jewish Students Network were often harshly critical of the government led by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the years after the Six-Day War. But Meir and her colleagues still considered such groups to be allies in the struggle to defend Israel against an Arab world that was determined to stick to its stance of “no peace, no recognition and no negotiations” with the Jewish state.

While left-wing Zionists differed with Israel’s government, they were still playing a valuable role confronting the virulent anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that had emerged among the so-called “New Left” in the 1960s. Whereas Socialists had heretofore identified with the Jewish people’s struggle for self-determination, the movements that emerged during the Vietnam War protests instead bought into the lie that Zionism was a form of colonialism. And the people who were most adept at answering these lies were left-wingers, who were able to make the case in student forums that being a Zionist wasn’t incompatible with being a progressive.

Flash-forward 50 years later and some still make the same claim. The conceit of the J Street lobby is that it is following in the footsteps of those students with its “pro-Israel, pro-peace” mantra. J Street thinks its critiques of the Netanyahu government give it the standing to speak for the tradition of liberal Zionism that is in tune with the political leanings of the vast majority of American Jews.

J Street argues that if the only voices speaking up for Israel are those identified with the Israeli right or supporters of the Trump administration, then it will turn off young Jews. Youth culture in the United States skews hard to the left, making any cause that isn’t somehow linked with progressive orthodoxy to be beyond the pale.

Radical anti-Zionist groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and their Jewish auxiliaries at IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), maintain a strong presence on many campuses these days. As a result, liberals believe that only groups with a progressive orientation like J Street U, which is deeply critical of Israeli policies while still claiming to be pro-Zionist, can effectively represent Jewish interests and, in effect, save Jewish youth for the pro-Israel camp.

It makes sense. Or at least, it would if that’s actually what J Street U was doing.

In the past few years, there have been many reported instances in which J Street U chapters have made common cause with SJP or JVP in criticizing the efforts of pro-Israel groups like the Maccabee Task Force or Hillel in order to castigate those organizing trips to Israel or holding events with Zionist speakers. In many other instances, J Street U chapters have jointly sponsored events with SJP or JVP groups.

J Street dismisses these charges as unimportant. It takes the position that it’s only natural for student groups to make alliances where possible, and that this doesn’t mean that J Street has abandoned its core principles. They say that by engaging with the far left, they are building understanding and enabling people who hate Israel to see that not all Zionists are bad guys like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, AIPAC representatives and others who have different opinions about the conflict.

Let’s leave aside for a moment, the obnoxious and dangerous assertion that it somehow makes sense for liberals to encourage Israel’s foes to divide the Jews into two groups: “bad Jews” who support Israel and “good Jews” who are uncomfortable with it. The problem with outreach to Jew-haters is that far from persuading them to think more kindly of Israel and the Jews, appeasing them in this way actually reinforces their conviction that supporters of the Jewish state are pariahs who can and should be isolated and destroyed.

The only people who appear to be influenced by such contacts appear to be those who cling to the title of liberal Zionists, but who don’t seem comfortable with any assertion of Jewish nationalism or even the most minimal form of self-defense on the part of Israel. More to the point, the line between J Street U, JVP and IfNotNow—groups that actively oppose Israel’s existence and even at times engage in anti-Semitic libels—is rapidly being blurred as they form alliances on campuses to try to isolate groups like the highly effective Maccabee Task Force or even the centrist and non-partisan Hillel chapters, which are home to much of the Jewish activity on most college campuses.

It’s still true that for many young Jews, anything that can be branded as non-progressive—let alone pro-Trump or pro-Netanyahu—is anathema to their worldview. Mainstream Jewish groups, including those that identify with the Zionist right, need to take into account that reaching Jewish millennials requires a different approach than the ones that worked with their parents and grandparents, who identified with the struggle for freedom for Soviet Jewry or who remember what a world without a Jewish state meant for persecuted Jews around the world.

But it is also true that a Zionist approach that eschews support for Jewish rights and self-defense—and which is neutral about anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist groups that seek Israel’s destruction, as well as to stigmatize its supporters here—is not doing the Jewish people any good. To the contrary, alliances with Jew-haters only strengthen the enemies of the Jews and make it that much more uncomfortable for Jews to be open about their identity on college campuses.

If J Street U can’t be relied upon to fight JVP and IfNotNow, then its claims to the mantle of progressive Zionism aren’t merely falling flat, but are a lie that both liberal and conservative Jews with any sense of pride or a shred of principle must reject with contempt.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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